My name is Brouwer

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

Where I grew up there was nothing at all unusual about the name Brouwer. Nearly everyone I knew – neighbors, classmates, teachers, even my pastor and dentist – had a distinctively Dutch last name, and so no one was ever puzzled by my name or had to ask me how to spell or pronounce it.

But as soon as I moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I lived for the first 20 years of my life, I quickly learned that Brouwer looked odd to some and was hard-to-pronounce for others. The name has been misspelled in a dozen different ways, as you may already have experienced, and it nearly always raises a question, like “What kind of a name is that?”

What kind of a name is that? It’s my name, and I am proud of it, though I wasn’t always sure why.

The good news, I suppose, is that in history there have been no really disreputable people named Brouwer. That might have soured my feelings about the name. On the other hand, no one especially famous has been named Brouwer either, though a few people may come close.

There’s a hockey player in the NHL whose name is Troy Brouwer. He seems to have played for every team in the league, which is an accomplishment. There’s a Cuban-born composer and classical guitarist named Leo Brouwer. I discovered that his real name is Juan Leovigildo Brouwer Mezquida, but he uses the last name Brouwer. Sigmund Brouwer is the name of a best-selling Canadian author of Christian books. He writes mostly for younger readers and has more than 30 novels in print. Joel Brouwer is an American poet. He was born in Grand Rapids, where I am from, and my older sister (and your great aunt) went to school with him. Early in the 20th century, there was an important Dutch mathematician named L.E.J. (Luitzen Egbertus Jan) Brouwer. I would like to read his books sometime, the ones not about math.

The only well known woman I could find with the last name Brouwer was Bertha “Puck” Brouwer. She was an Olympic sprinter (for the Netherlands), and she won a medal at the 1952 summer Olympics.

Probably the best known Brouwer who ever lived was a 17th century Dutch painter named Adriaen Brouwer. I have known about him for most of my life because my parents had a coffee table book about him, and we always called him “Uncle Adriaen.” Only a few dozen of his paintings have survived, but they hang in some of the best-known museums in the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The people he painted were, well, peasants – people who spent a lot of time (as he apparently did) in taverns – drinking, smoking, card playing, brawling, and having their teeth pulled. He died when he was only 32 or 33, and art historians attribute his early death either to alcohol abuse or to the plague.

As far as I know, I am not related to any of the people I mentioned, except of course for my sister.

When I was a child I tried to figure out what Dutch names meant. Most aren’t hard to get. DeJong (some immigrants changed it to DeYoung) means “the young” or “junior.” DeVries is easy too. It identifies a person from Friesland, a northern Dutch province. Van den Berg (also Van de Berg or Van der Berg) is kind of funny because it means “from the mountain,” and as you know there are no mountains in the Netherlands (a third of the country is below sea level). Bakker is a common Dutch name, and – as with a lot of Dutch names – refers to an occupation – namely, “baker.” Visser, likewise, means “fisherman.” Mulder means “miller.” A Meijer, Meier, or Meyer is an “overseer” or “steward.” And Smith is – you guessed it – a “smith.”

So, you won’t be surprised to learn that a Brouwer is a “brewer” – of beer or ale. Back in the day, every Dutch village had a baker and a smith and most likely a brewer. People from all social classes in northern Europe drank beer, partly because growing grapes was difficult or impossible.

Beer is one of the oldest beverages humans have produced. It dates back to the 5th century B.C.E. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. By the 14th and 15th centuries C.E., European beer brewing had moved from being a family activity to something that was considered a skilled trade.

No stigma was attached to beer drinking either. Monasteries in Europe often sold beer and were some of its biggest producers, a bit of trivia that always makes me smile.

How did occupations like baker and smith and brewer become last names? The answer, believe it or not, can be traced to a specific date and a famous person: August 18, 1811 is the date, and the famous person was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.

On that fateful day in August, with the French army occupying northern Europe, Napoleon signed a decree establishing a registry of births, marriages, and deaths. Families that did not already have a last name (or surname) were obliged to choose one. Say what you want about Napoleon, but he should be the patron saint of genealogists.

There’s a legend, which I like, that some Dutch people resisted Napoleon by taking on goofy or nonsensical names, thinking that they would simply drop them when the French army left. A few Dutch names I have heard seem to support this theory. What about Zonderkop (Without a Head) or Naaktgeboren (Born Naked) or Uittenbroek (Out of his Pants)? My personal favorite is Pekelharing (Pickled Herring), a Dutch delicacy.

Sadly, the legend is probably just a legend.

Centuries ago the Dutch also employed a patronymic system for names, which many Icelandic people still do (Icelanders also use a matronymic system). In a patronymic system the father’s first name becomes the son’s last name. If my family still used a patronymic system, my last name would be Jackson, because I am Jack’s son. This explains why some Dutch people today have the names Jansen or Hendriksen or Klassen.

Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn, a Dutch name you have probably heard, used the patronymic system. He was the son (or zoon) of Harmen, from the Rhine River, and interestingly he has no last name.

All of this is important to my story because, in my family tree, the name Brouwer first appears with a man named Rinze Davids Brouwer, my great, great, great, great-grandfather (four greats!), who lived from 1779 to 1839. Curiously, his father does not use Brouwer as a last name, and until I read the story about Napoleon, I had no idea how to account for the abrupt name change. Now, at last, there seems to be a reasonable explanation. The name Brouwer first appeared in my family tree on or about 1811, not all that long ago.

You probably already know that a name is not the most important thing about a person. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare famously asked. “That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” And that’s true. Who and what you are is far more important than what you are called.

Still, no offense to Shakespeare, names are important. Some people hate the one they were given and adopt something different. Others struggle to live up to the name they were given. A dear friend of mine who grew up in a Hindu village in India had to give up his family name when he became a Christian, something that reminds him every day about the extraordinary demands of his faith.

For me the name Brouwer is a reminder that I come from somewhere, that I have a unique history, that the people who went before me worked hard and learned an important skill. I like to think that Brouwer is a solid name, not flashy. It’s earthy and unpretentious. I can make of it whatever I choose – good or bad.

If your parents gave you Brouwer as one of your names, then I hope you will think of it proudly, as I do. I hope you will remember that you came from a good and solid and unpretentious people.

(Photo: Another one from Ellis Island. Antje, Aafke, and Trientje? Probably not. )

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

4 Responses to My name is Brouwer

  1. Georgia Hamilton June 20, 2018 at 3:28 pm #

    Doug, I found your blog about “names” fascinating! My father came from Greece and (perhaps you already know this) butthe children take as their middle name, their father’s first name—therefor my birth name is Georgia George_____. I tewll peop[le this with a fair amount of pride! I have your book but confess I haven’t yet read it—your blog inspires me to get to it! Warmly,

    • Georgia Hamilton June 20, 2018 at 3:31 pm #

      I just reread my comments —just want to say, I DO know how to spell but my fingers aren’t aware of that fact! Georgia

  2. Doug June 20, 2018 at 10:12 pm #

    I KNOW that you know how to spell, Georgia. I can’t write without a copy editor. If your name were Georgia George, I would feel the same about you. I hope you’re well.

  3. Rajan Nainar June 22, 2018 at 6:21 am #


    It’s a fantastic blog you have written about names – it’s fascinating and interesting.
    I am very much interested in names and especially origin of the names (place, ethnicity etc.,).

    When I read your last blog “DNA Story for Douglas”, I was curious why you have a dutch name if your genes are 80% British 🙂 I would never have guessed that Napoleon Bonaparte had kind of played a role in the history of your family name!!

    Several of my questions are answered in one go! Keep blogging 🙂